As a professional dog trainer I can’t think of a question I get asked more often than, “Can you train an older dog?”. My standard answer is yes, of course, you can. However, the truth of the matter is that it all depends. There are many factors that go into determining whether in an old dog can learn new tricks or not.
The number one factor is how ingrained the habit is that we’re trying to change. You see, when young dogs are going through the imprint period (between 12 and 20 weeks old) they begin to learn what they like and dislike about life. It’s also during this time that they create associations about learning and training. Associations that dogs create early in life are the basis of the habits that are going to last a lifetime.
When I get a young dog in for obedience training — it’s my job to be able to foster a positive learning environment — similar to that of an elementary school teacher. As a dog owner, it’s extremely important to make sure we are creating habits that are in line with the “rules of the house” or our “standards in the field”. If a dog is left to determine its own habits, chances are his idea on what are good habits will be considerably different than yours. So it should go without saying that it is far easier to stop a dog from misbehaving when they are young and impressionable than it is to change a habit that has been ingrained for years.
Similar to humans, bad habits are hard to break and most importantly it takes time and consistency. You can’t expect your dog to be any more consistent than you are. In fact, it is extremely unfair to a dog to keep changing your standard. For example, if one minute you let him jump up on you and the next minute he is met with a knee to the chest. Well, what message is that sending to the dog? Simply put, he can’t trust you and its this bond that will have a lasting impact on the relationship you have with your four legged friend.
I am a firm believer that you can teach old dogs new tricks. I do it every day. Admittedly, older dogs take more time and patience and sometimes require that we reprogram their associations with learning before ever attempting to teach an older dog “new tricks”. In many cases, I will start my training program with an older dog the same way I will start it will a young puppy. Remember, you have to reprogram the dog’s associations with learning first — find out what motivates your dog and keep it short and fun. You might be surprised how far treats, praise or throw toys can go in motivating an older dog and help teach that old dog new tricks.